An Accident of Geography

Written on December 14, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen


It is well known that, after its conquest at the hands of Augustus, the various provinces that comprise the Iberian peninsula enjoyed a long period of prosperity. Hispanium produced three of Rome’s great emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius), boasted cities of wealth that rivalled Rome (Italica, Merida), and had a flourishing network of trade that promoted contact with Iberia throughout the Mediterranean.

Despite Iberia’s profit from the Pax Romana, however,  the Northern part of the country remained under more or less permanent military occupation. It was once thought this was linked to the persistence of sporadic fighting in the North – it had been pesky Cantabrian tribes, after all, that had resisted Roman authority the longest. Having visited the Roman mining complex at Las Medulas earlier this year, I was thus very interested to learn that it was not the potential threat of civil war, but rather the gold fields in the Northwest part of the country, that kept a permanent military garrison – including the famous Gemina VII legion – in Spain. That accident of geography has had a major impact on Spain’s history and culture.

The post-Augustan legionary presence in Spain was centred around the city of León, and the traces of its long presence there aboSanisidoro_entrancegate_2und. Indeed, archaeological work in León demonstrates that a city has been there permanently ever since the Gemina VII legion set up a garrison in the first century AD. The VII legion’s role in controlling the exploitation of gold helped various figures to amass considerable wealth, explaining the numerous Roman villas that dot the Northwest corner of Spain. This produced an active industry of craftsmen and
skilled labourers that permeated the local economy for centuries.

Just as interesting is the role the Roman legions based permanently in Hispanium played in importing (presumably exporting as well) various ideas from around the Roman world. Exploits of the VII legion are best known, but others were also used to help Rome control its territories. Spanish-based legions imported ideas from Britain, Mauritania, Syria, and lands North of the Danube. Some of this was likely mundane, such as the introduction of different kinds of skills. Others were more arcane, however, such as building styles or imported Deist cults, evidenced by the funerary monuments that devotees erected.

The legacy of this pan-Roman contact is still a matter of some uncertainty, but it can be seen with astonishing impact on the facade of the Basilica to San Isidoro in León. The Church is on a temple site that dates back to the high Roman Imperial period and it is likely that the Basilica, started in the 11th century, incorporated elements of the earlier  building styles. The facade (pictured) is a wonderful collage of odd symbols and elements, including for example, zodiac imagery. These non-Christian elements almost certainly reflect the predominance of one or more local cults associated with the city and its legion prior to Christianisation. Where those cults came from … the evidence is varied and still largely unknown, but it is striking that symbols associated locally with León are also found in the farthest reaches of the Roman world. In its melange of Christian and non-Christian elements, the facade of San Isidro is a good reminder that a simple accident of geography can have a powerful cutlural impact that persists for hundreds or even thousands of years.


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